Fine Women

Neil Rennie

  • The Pacific since Magellan. Vol. III: Paradise Found and Lost by O.H.K. Spate
    Routledge, 410 pp, £40.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 415 02565 6
  • Captain Bligh: The Man and his Mutinies by Gavin Kennedy
    Duckworth, 321 pp, £14.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2231 5
  • The Sublime Savage: James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian by Fiona Stafford
    Edinburgh, 208 pp, £22.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 85224 569 6

In the 1760s the greatest gap in Western knowledge of the world – the Pacific – was plugged, in theory, by the great southern continent of Terra Australis, awaiting its Columbus. Within a few decades this continent had been exploded, mostly by its anti-Columbus, James Cook, and crumbled into a multitude of islands in a vast ocean, mapped, measured and ready for invasion by beachcombers, traders, whalers, missionaries, colonial administrators and, in their wake, historians. The voyagers, equipped with scientists and artists, had replaced a fictional continent with factual islands – a triumph of empiricism in preparation for a triumph of empire, apparently, but then the voyagers who had demolished Terra Australis had discovered Tahiti, an idea as well as an island, a ‘paradise’ found and then lost.

Such, in outline, is the story implicit in the third and final volume of O.H.K. Spate’s voyage through the history of The Pacific since Magellan. The narrative closes at the end of the 18th century, although his account of economic activity runs into the first quarter of the 19th. The book opens with an assessment of the controversial theories about the origins of the indigenous Pacific peoples, whose own prehistorical voyages and settlements recent archaeology has plunged deeper into a past now to be measured in millennia, not centuries, and to be studied with the aid of radiocarbon dating, genetic analysis and computer simulations of drift. This chapter is followed by a survey of the islands and peoples as they were on the eve of the regular and prolonged contacts of the latter half of the 18th century. Here are the islands – from coral reefs (‘classified, rather roughly, into three main types’) to breadfruit tree, so symbolic to Joseph Banks of paradise found (almost): ‘In the article of food these happy people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefather; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow when their chiefest substance Bread fruit is procured with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down.’ Here are the coconuts that floated or were carried across the ocean (studies are in print) to grow on sandy, salty atolls and feed the edible dogs, thatch the vegetable houses, bend in the inevitable cyclones, and grow, above all, into the symbol of ‘paradise’ sold. Here, too, are the islanders – classified, rather roughly, into three main types: Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians – with their economic, religious, social and political systems and concepts, tabu, mana, et al, and here are their arts and artefacts – hula, tapa, canoes, tattoos – and, lest we think the Pacific islanders pacific, their wars, sacrifices and cannibalism. Here, then, are the Pacific islands peopled, palm-treed and awaiting discovery, while underneath this reliable island of information – the compact ecology, anthropology and ethnography of ‘paradise’ – the notes tell another story, of the curse of our forefather visited upon the conscientious scholar. References to more than eighty articles and books support Spate’s comprehensive vision of island life.

The technology of the discoverers’ ships is thoroughly checked – sails, charts, quadrants, chronometers – and the utopists and the theorists of Terra Australis are explored, men like Campbell, de Brosses and Callander, reminding one of Swift’s ‘project which will tend to the great benefit of all Mankind’: ‘to print by subscription in 96 large volumes in folio, an exact Description of Terra Australis incognita, collected with great care & pains from 999 learned & pious Authors of undoubted veracity’.

The scientific findings of the voyagers are catalogued and considered, and these findings are not just islands and coastlines located and mapped. Cook’s first trip to Tahiti entailed the observation of the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun, an observation that Spate argues was ‘very significant, if not crucial, in the evaluation of the world-wide corpus of observations which determined the Sun’s distance from the Earth to within 1 per cent’. Meanwhile Banks observed the Tahitians, his detailed notes on their ‘Manners & Customs’ marking the beginnings of scientific ethnography, and returned home from his global grand tour with 1000 species of plants, 500 birds and 500 fish, as well as news of the almost paradisal breadfruit. Boswell enthused provocatively and Johnson responded in character: ‘No, Sir (holding up a slice of a good loaf), this is better than the bread tree.’ The voyagers ‘have found very little, only one new animal, I think’. Boswell: ‘But many insects, Sir.’

The matter of the Pacific has narrative as well as scientific value. The best of South Sea tales are fact, not fiction, and Spate tells them deftly as well as briefly, knowing the lengths of speculation and faction some of them have run to. The drama of Cook’s death is told and analysed, with various explanations considered, the cause of his violent end being sought medically, in his intestines, which may have been infested with ‘a heavy ascaris (round-worm)’, and also tragi-anthropologically, in ‘hubris’ resulting from his identification by the Hawaiians with their god Lono. The Tahitians’ own discovery during Bougainville’s visit is not forgotten: Jean Baret, botanical assistant, was Jeanne Baret. Nor the sad tale of La Pérouse, the French answer to Cook, who set sail with ships that were ‘almost floating laboratories’ and vanished after leaving the newly arrived British colonists at Botany Bay. ‘Is there any news of La Pérouse?’ asked Louis XVI on the eve of his execution. The mystery was solved in 1827 and as a boy at Vanikoro I chipped a rusty piece off an old French anchor and put it in my pocket.

The Bounty saga, featuring Banks’s breadfruit again, is wrapped up in six pages. Bligh and Christian, old shipmates, are declared ‘heterosexual’, and we are reminded that Bligh eventually completed his mission, and that ‘AFRICA’S dark sons’ in the West Indies thought the breadfruit not worth the trouble. Gavin Kennedy, in Captain Bligh: The Man and his Mutinies, also dismisses speculation about homosexuality and has rather more pages to spare for narration and explanation. Most people today would surely agree that the causes of the mutiny two hundred years ago would include both the ‘paradise’ of Tahiti (Bligh’s explanation) and the ‘hell’ of Bligh (Christian’s explanation), but it seems reasonable to seek, as Kennedy does, a further explanation in terms of Christian himself, ‘whose sensitivity verged on paranoia’, according to Spate. Certainly Christian was seen coming from Bligh on the eve of the mutiny with tears ‘running fast from his eyes in big drops’, but this is evidence of Bligh’s insensitivity as well as Christian’s sensitivity. Kennedy reveals his unreliability as an impartial judge by choosing to interpret Christian’s battle with the islanders on Tubuai as a gratuitous ‘punitive attack’, and by preferring, of the various accounts of Christian given by the survivor John Adams on Pitcairn, the one which is unfavourable. Christian’s Pitcairn was, of course, no more a paradise than Bligh’s Bounty. There were Tahitian women on Pitcairn, but not enough of them, and the results were another, bloodier mutiny and Christian’s death. But Kennedy is much more understanding of Bligh’s difficulties as a commander endowed with official authority than of Christian’s much greater difficulties without that authority. It has been recognised for some time now that Bligh was not the celluloid brute portrayed by tyrannical, lashing Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard, and Kennedy takes the process of rehabilitation a credible stage further, though his comparison of Bligh with Mother Teresa is a stage too far for me. His book amply demonstrates, to anyone who still believes in the Hollywood monster, that Bligh’s behaviour didn’t justify a mutiny, let alone all the deaths that resulted in the aftermath. The mutineers’ grievances were about cheese, coconuts and yams rather than tyranny, and about what Kennedy calls ‘tongue lashings’ rather than real lashings. Bligh was not really hell any more than Tahiti was really paradise, but then the ‘women of Otaheite’ were attractive, as Bligh said, and they were certainly more attractive than Bligh.

The central story in Spate’s book begins before the story of the Bounty, however, with the discovery by Captain Wallis in 1767 of what the sailors at first supposed was ‘the long wished for Southern Continent’ but was its replacement on the utopist’s map, a more tangible fantasy: Tahiti. The stone-age Tahitians wanted iron and the hungry, monosexual strangers wanted pigs, first, and women afterwards. The guns of the Dolphin taught the Tahitians to make love, not war, for iron nails, and Wallis sailed with his men sleeping on the ship’s decks for want of nails to their hammocks. When the French arrived, under the command of a man who left his hope of fame in a flower, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, courtier, savant, soldier, sailor, the Pacific of legend was ready to be discovered immediately, when a jeune fille came aboard the Boudeuse as the anchor was being lowered: ‘The young girl negligently let fall a cloth which covered her, and appeared to everyone’s eyes as Venus had revealed herself to the Phrygian shepherd. She had the goddess’s celestial form.’ Thus Tahiti discovered itself to Paris, in Bougainville’s published account. The island which Wallis had labelled ‘King George the third’s Island’ Bougainville named ‘la Nouvelle-Cythère’.

This was the Tahiti where Cook and Banks came in their turn to observe the celestial Venus, and to discover a new kind of noble savage, the nubile savage, revealed to English readers in Hawkesworth’s florid but basically faithful rendition of their journals. To these readers, shocked or delighted by the ‘spectacle’ of public copulation in Tahiti which Hawkesworth made public in England – substituting ‘performed the rights of Venus with’ for Cook’s naked ‘lay with’ – the shameless sexuality of the Tahitian Venus, or Eve, was of more interest than the corpses of 500 fish stashed at Soho Square, or an accurate map of antipodal New Zealand, or even the observation of the planet Venus, however useful in determining the Earth’s distance from the Sun. Horace Walpole ‘waded through’ Hawkesworth’s Voyages to conclude that it lacked ‘entertaining matter’, but Mrs Charlotte Hayes recognised entertaining matter when she saw it and took the liberty of inviting her clients to an observation in London: ‘Mrs Hayes commends herself respectfully to Lord ... and takes the liberty of advising him that this evening at 7 o’clock precisely, 12 beautiful nymphs, spotless virgins, will carry out the famous feast of Venus, as it is celebrated in Tahiti.’ Boswell interviewed Cook, who said, according to Boswell, that ‘Hawkesworth’s story [of public copulation] he had no reason to believe.’ Boswell thought such controversial phenomena should be observed more closely by ‘some men of inquiry’ and ‘felt a stirring in my mind to go on such an undertaking’. He told Johnson the next day of his ‘strong inclination’ to sail on Cook’s next voyage, and Johnson responded: ‘Why, Sir, a man does feel so, till he considers how very little he can learn from such voyages.’

Spate’s chapter on ‘The Tahitian Venus and the Good Savage’ treats this matter of Tahiti but may leave the reader in some doubt – despite a section entitled ‘An Earthly Paradise’ and the title of the book itself – about whether ‘paradise’ was ‘found’ in the Pacific and, if so, why. The basic evidence from the voyagers’ journals – Banks’s reflections on the breadfruit, for instance, or Fesche’s excited description of the public love offered by a young girl avec le seul habillement que portoit Eve avant son péché – is not provided, and neither is an account of the history of the idea of the ‘earthly paradise’ in the literature of travel (although the related ideas of the ‘golden age’ and the ‘good savage’ are properly placed in relation to America). Crucial questions are raised about the amount of ‘ “invisible baggage” in the form of Rousseauist concepts’ carried by the voyager, about the extent to which his ‘vision is conditioned by the image that he carries within himself’, and are immediately followed by a comparison of ‘the variants between Bougainville’s Journal and his published Voyage’, in which ‘we can see a refashioning in accordance with the “collective demand” ’. The conclusion reached, that in the Voyage there was ‘an ambivalent balancing: some literary embellishments added, classical in form but romantic in feeling; some notes of harsh realism’, should be qualified by the facts, incidentally acknowledged by Spate, that some ‘literary embellishments’ were subtracted as well as added, and that the ‘harsh realism’ is the result of Bougainville’s conversations, after leaving Tahiti, with his Tahitian passenger, Aotourou (who hoped there were des femmes pour lui où nous allons). But anyway it’s hard to see how such a conclusion, qualified or, as it stands, unqualified, is evidence of ‘a refashioning in accordance with the “collective demand” ’, whatever that may precisely be, and harder still to see it as having any relation to the questions raised about the voyager’s ‘invisible baggage’.

Of course Spate is right to comment that ‘these are questions that can hardly be resolved in a general history,’ and indeed their proper consideration, to say nothing of their resolution, would require a more detailed and directed exploration of the voyagers’ texts and of their history, not in the geographical medium of the Pacific, but in the literary medium of travel literature, with its tendency to move in the opposite direction from travellers themselves: not forwards to a factual, empirical America or Tahiti, but backwards, to a fictional, textual past, Classical and Biblical, the golden age of Hesiod and Ovid, the earthly paradise of Genesis.

The Paradise Found of Spate’s title must therefore remain to some extent in question, though his and Lost is clearer to the reader. The signs of this ‘paradise lost’ were, though Spate does not say so, plainly visible in Hawkesworth’s published version of the journals of Banks, and Cook, which described the Tahitian Ariois’s practice of infanticide as well as the paradisal breadfruit and the shameless sexuality, thus revealing simultaneously a post-lapsarian as well as a pre-lapsarian Pacific to the British public, who did not fail, in the pamphlets following in the wake of Hawkesworth’s Voyages, to portray the sexual thrills of the Tahitian Venus with reference to Milton’s lines describing Eve’s fallen copulation in Paradise Lost. The loss of paradise is evident, too, as Spate demonstrates, in the accounts of French voyagers after Bougainville, which describe the massacre of Marion du Fresne and 30 of his men at New Zealand (‘Is it possible that the good Children of Nature could be so wicked?’ was Rousseau’s reported response) and another massacre at Samoa which angered La Pérouse: ‘I am however a hundred times more angry with the philosophers who so exalt the savages than with the savages themselves. The unfortunate Lamanon, whom they massacred, said to me on the eve of his death, that these men were more worthy than ourselves.’

Paradise lost was not fully discovered until the arrival of representatives of the London Missionary Society at Tahiti in 1797, inspired to make a new kind of voyage of enlightenment to the islands where ‘every turpitude, committed in the face of open day, proclaims, that shame is as little felt, as a sense of sin is known.’ Innocence of sin and shame was evidence of paradise lost, not found, although there were those, like Melville and Gauguin, who saw the missionaries as causing, not discovering, the loss of paradise.

These developments in the 19th century are beyond the range of Spate’s book, but we should recognise just how extensive his range has been since he declared his intention in the Preface to his first volume ‘to see the Pacific as a real entity, as a whole over space and through time’. So much has been judiciously, reliably surveyed in over nine hundred pages since Balboa looked south from a hilltop in Darien at the ‘South Sea’ which Magellan, from a different point of view, would call, in hope, ‘Pacific’. The ocean Magellan traversed in space and Cook explored in three voyages has now been traversed in time and explored in three volumes, and surely Spate may say of the Pacific, as Cook did, ‘that no one will think that I have left it unexplor’d.’

Boswell didn’t go on a tour to Tahiti, but to the Highlands and Islands, in search of ‘simplicity and wildness’ and, incidentally, to test the authenticity of Macpherson’s Fingal, not Hawkesworth’s Voyages. The evidence he discovered was such as to confirm Johnson’s opinion of Macpherson’s work:

Johnson. ‘Well sir, this is just what I always maintained. He has found names, and stories, and phrases, nay passages in old songs, and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem.’ – If this was the case, I observed, it was wrong to publish it as a poem in six books. – Johnson. ‘Yes, sir; and to ascribe it to a time too when the Highlanders knew nothing of books, and nothing of six ...’

In Fiona Stafford’s The Sublime Savage, which takes its title from Boswell’s nickname for Macpherson, it is again a question of invention and discovery – of the bygone Highlands as a ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Scottish Paradise’ and also, of course, of The Poems of Ossian. Not that Fiona Stafford wants to consider that ‘fraudulence issue’ which ‘has always loomed over any discussion of Macpherson’s work to the exclusion of more constructive approaches’. ‘Rather than sitting in judgment’ on Macpherson, she is concerned, more constructively, ‘to consider his motivation’ and to provide an explanatory context for The Poems of Ossian, a document of the 18th century not the third, which she places convincingly in relation to the contemporary discoveries of ‘simplicity and wildness’ in Homer as well as in the Highlands.

Stafford shows that Macpherson, who as a child witnessed ‘the humiliation of his Chief and Clan’ in the aftermath of Culloden, might have had some reason to ‘see the world of his childhood as a lost paradise’ – even though the Highlands were never much of a place for breadfruit and shameless sex – and that he might consequently have felt some sympathy with his gloomy creation Ossian, who ‘lives’, as Hazlitt remarked, ‘only in the recollection and regret of the past’. Proceeding from his ‘lost paradise’ to Aberdeen University, a different place, Macpherson would probably have learned his teachers’ ideas about the Homeric epics, as we certainly do from Stafford, though one of the few things we learn about Macpherson himself is that he was not thought remarkable ‘for application or proficiency in his studies’. As a dissatisfied teacher back home in the Highlands, and as a private tutor at Moffat, Macpherson began collecting some of the traditional Gaelic verses which were being recognised in the Scots Magazine for their Homeric qualities of ‘antiquity’, ‘sublimity’ and ‘simplicity’.

This was the young man, then, whom the Scottish playwright John Home, in company at Moffat with Alexander Carlyle and other Edinburgh literati in search of ‘simplicity and wildness’, pressed to make a translation of a sample from his Gaelic collection. So now that old ‘fraudulence issue’ must surely loom. What was Macpherson’s ‘motivation’? Why did he invent and not translate? ‘If he was going to co-operate at all, why not just translate part of his Gaelic collection? Alexander Carlyle’s description of the young Highlander is revealing: “He was Good looking, of a Large Size, with very thick Legs, to Hide which he Generally wore Boots, tho’ not then the Fashion.” ’ This sudden contemplation of boots seems more ‘revealing’ of embarrassment, perhaps Stafford’s as well as Macpherson’s, than of an answer to the question. But on the basis of these boots an explanation is built, ‘more constructive’ than ‘fraudulence’, that Macpherson was embarrassed, not only by how his primitive ‘thick Legs’ would appear to the polished literati, but by how his Gaelic verses would appear, naked in translation. He ‘seems’ to have believed that extant Gaelic poetry was corrupt, and that what he was doing in inventing it was ‘restoring’ it. This view of what Macpherson ‘seems’ to have believed about Gaelic poetry soon becomes ‘his view’ and ‘Macpherson’s notion’, and its improbable corollary, that he believed he was ‘restoring’ Gaelic poetry – by supplying epic form and continuity, romantic melancholy, terrific sublimity and much more – is insistently repeated.

The evidence to add to the boots comes rather later, with the quotation of a recollection by Andrew Gallie, at whose manse Macpherson arrived in 1760 with ‘two Ponies laden’ with some of the ‘old Manuscripts’ which the literati had sent him travelling to gather, and from which he was required to produce the promised lost Caledonian epic, although, as Stafford says, he ‘appears to have been largely ignorant of Gaelic orthography’: ‘I remember Mr Macpherson reading the MSS found in Clanronald’s, execrating the bard himself who had dictated to the amanuensis, saying “D – m the scoundrel, it is he himself that now speaks, and not Ossian.” ’ ‘Gallie’s anecdote,’ says Stafford, ‘shows that Macpherson regarded the poems in the books he had collected as corrupt versions of ancient poetry ... With such a view, he felt justified in his attempts at “restoration”.’ Well, this anecdote doesn’t seem to me to provide sufficient proof that Macpherson really believed extant Gaelic poetry ‘corrupt’, let alone that he believed himself engaged in ‘restoration’ and not something much ‘more constructive’. Indeed, this view is hardly compatible with the findings of Derick Thomson’s The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ (1952), which are not much different from Johnson’s. Nor is it compatible with Stafford’s own statement that Macpherson’s work ‘was aimed at English-speakers and, in particular, at the literary circles of Edinburgh, so he was anxious to give them what they wanted’. Moreover, it is not compatible with Stafford’s main achievement in this book, which is to place The Poems of Ossian in relation to its author, a man ‘between two worlds’, primitive and polished, and in relation to the taste of its 18th-century admirers. Macpherson gave these admirers the opportunity they wanted, to escape into a wild, romantic past in a Classical, epic pattern, and they gave him in return the opportunity he wanted, to escape in an opposite direction and enjoy, as he told Boswell over breakfast in London, ‘the highest relish of polished society’ and – ‘for a guinea’ if not a nail – ‘as fine women as ever were created’.